In the wake of the jury verdict finding George Zimmerman not guilty in his killing of Trayvon Martin, many in the media have pushed the line that Florida's notorious "Stand Your Ground" (SYG) law played no role in the trial. They couldn't be more wrong.
After the National Rifle Association pushed through changes in Florida's murder laws in 2005, the jury instructions in homicide cases were also changed. According to the NRA's lead lobbyist, Marion Hammer, the powerful pro-gun group reviewed the new jury instructions before they were final, noting she "looked them over and the attorneys at NRA headquarters have looked them over and they appear to be pretty faithful" to the law she helped conceive. The instructions, Hammer said, reflected the NRA's call to remove the "duty to retreat" and recognize a new right to "stand your ground."
At the end of Zimmerman's trial last week, the judge instructed the jury, with language mandated by the SYG law, on the grounds for justifiable homicide. Here is exactly what the jury was told to consider in its deliberations:
"If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in anyplace where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony."
Even though a Florida law-enforcement agency had asked Zimmerman to not pursue Martin -- that he didn't need to follow him -- in the end, it didn't matter: The NRA had successfully changed the law in Zimmerman's favor. That rainy night in Florida, one man was armed with a deadly weapon and looking for trouble and a kid was walking home from the store to watch a basketball game. But according to the law, Zimmerman had no duty to retreat. He could follow Trayvon anywhere he "had a right to be."
And what about Martin's "right to be"? What about his right to stand his ground, or to defend himself from an angry man with a gun? The jury instructions said nothing on that.
That is not all that SYG changed. It also put the NRA's thumb on the scale of justice if the family of a shooting victim sues the shooter. The SYG law says that if the court finds that the shooter gets civil immunity in the case -- based on his right to stand his ground and not retreat -- then the plaintiff must pay the killer's attorney's fees, court costs, and lost wages. Any grieving family seeking to hold a shooter accountable will have to think twice about the financial risks of a civil lawsuit. And that's exactly the outcome the NRA intended.
That's not just the law in Florida. It's become the law in more than two dozen states after the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group of state legislators and corporate lobbyists that is funded by some of the biggest corporations in the world, ratified the NRA's bill, signed into law by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, as a national model. As the Center for Media and Democracy has documented on its PRWatch.org and ALECexposed.org, the NRA's Hammer took that bill to a closed-door meeting of an ALEC Task Force co-chaired by Wal-Mart and, in a secret vote by corporate lobbyists and legislators, it was approved as a national model.
Since the controversy over Zimmerman's shooting of Martin arose last year, ALEC has tried to distance itself from this legacy. ALEC disbanded its criminal justice task force and said it was going to focus on economic issues; however, the NRA had the biggest booth at its annual convention last year, and the annual NRA shooting event with ALEC lawmakers and lobbyists continued. There is no evidence, moreover, that ALEC has expended substantial resources to get the SYG laws repealed. Meanwhile, the NRA has vowed to defend SYG and try to thwart its repeal.
But these laws should be repealed. Jurors should not be instructed that homicide can be justified in cases like Zimmerman's on the grounds that a guy with a gun has no duty to retreat. Obviously, a man with a gun has the upper hand in facing someone who is unarmed. And families shouldn't have their legal recourse effectively taken away if a loved one is killed.
In 21st-century America, you shouldn't be allowed to get away with murder.
This article was first published in Politico. Lisa Graves is Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy (PRWatch.org and ALECexposed.org). She formerly served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Policy at the U.S. Department of Justice, where she handled gun policy.